Saturday, December 11, 2010

Self-Editing: Another turn of the Kaleidoscope

I asked my friend, and fellow Montana author to write a column about the value of editing when you self-publish.

Self-published author:
God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana (2009 Spur award for Best first Novel)
Gold Under Ice (Sequel to God’s Thunderbolt)

Most writing coaches advise not to self-edit as you write because it stifles creativity. I don’t know what sort of editing they mean, because my reaction to that is “bunk.”

I've just gone through NaNoWriMo, and I’m finding it very uncomfortable because I want to stop and answer the little voice in my head that asks if this character would really say that, or if these men would sit down in the middle of the morning and tell stories about another man. Surely there’s a better way to convey his character to the reader than by these stilted conversations, I tell myself. I want to answer those questions as I write because that’s my usual method. (So I put in notes to myself to be answered in later.) After all, isn’t that what subsequent drafts are for?
When I write, I metaphorically turn a kaleidoscope. Remember them? Less common these days, they are tubes filled with bits of glass or plastic and a peephole at one end. What starts out as a jumble becomes more meaningful with every turn, until the last turn reveals a beautiful pattern of line and color. That’s what I’m after when I write: the final design and pattern of the novel in words and imagery.

I prefer not to write the book and then go back to turn the kaleidoscope. I turn it as I write. I stop and look for the right word. Not just a good word or a better word, but the right word. I look first to Word’s built-in Thesaurus, then to my elderly copy of Roget’s, and if I’m still doubtful, I dig into the Old English Dictionary, the one with such tiny print I need a magnifying glass. (So does everyone else.) The OED tells me if a word existed at the time of the Civil War, or if it was used in the sense I want. I take the closest word, put it in and go on, but that quest can sometimes take quite awhile.

If a sentence doesn’t ring right in my ear, I fuss with it until it does, until the rhythm is right and music of the words supports the meaning, the characterization, and the action. I try to vary the sentence length and rhythm and word usage to support the meaning, especially when different characters are speaking. We all have different voices and ways of speaking, and I want readers to know from hearing a character’s voice when he or she is telling the story.

Grammar and punctuation and spelling get their turn, too, because some errors can jar a reader out of the story into his or her reality. All of this I try to take care of as I write, sometimes four complete drafts, although some scenes may need 20 or more turns of the kaleidoscope before they come right.

Eventually, I shall have turned the kaleidoscope enough times so the final pattern comes clear: “That’s it!” I say. At that point, I stop self-editing and send the book to an editor because I have reached the point at which I can’t see it any more, and the next turn could ruin the design.

So far this way of writing works for me. It led to the 2009 Spur for Best First Novel from the Western Writers of America, although the novel that won (God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana) is not a traditional Western, but historical fiction set in the West. Judging from readers’ email and the reviews on Amazon, it works for the sequel, Gold Under Ice.

I think I’ll continue with the kaleidoscope method.

Carol's books are available at her website and as Kindle editions on Amazon.
She also blogs at Writing near the Swan Range


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. Thanks for posting this. I'm glad I'm not the only one who edits as she goes. Knitters don't keep knitting if they drop a stitch—they unravel and fix it. Seamstresses fix a puckered seam before they sew the whole garment; gardeners don't wait until their gardens are full of weeds before they start weeding. Why should writers be any different?

  2. Thanks for a good post.

    I agree that self-editing is part of the process. If I'm not happy with the way the story is going, no one else can fix it - it's up to me.

    Thanks again.

  3. You're welcome, Becky! I knit, too, and love the knitting analogy. If I miss that "dropped stitch" sometimes quite late in the writing I'll have to go back and rewrite great areas of the novel. A character might have taken a wrong turn, or my account of the weather might be in accurate, and the pattern is out of kilter for the rest of the story.

    Good luck with your writing!

  4. You're welcome, Ms Kitty! And you're right, some things only the writer can fix. We can't leave everything up to the editor.

    Hope your writing goes well!

  5. I just discovered this blog and it's fantastic! Great post Carol, I found your method to be very similar to what I do; I just haven't been at it as long or as successfully. Thanks for sharing your techniques!

  6. Sometimes I fall into the trap of too much self-editing and then can't move my story along. That's because I have limited time for writing.

    What I try to do now is to only go back a little way from where I left off so I can get back into the swing of things and still make it more polished.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. Carol,

    I like your description of kaleidoscope editing. Each of us has to find the writing/self-editing process that works best for that person. I usually advise beginning writers to "write first, edit later" because I've seen too many who spent forever trying to perfect the first chapter of their novel and never get any further. But writers who can edit as they write and progress in their work should follow that system. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all method.

    Lillie Ammann
    A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye

  8. Enjoyed the post, Carol. Thanks for guesting here.

    Like, Lillie, I have seen a lot of new writers who can't seem to get past that first chapter or so because they are working so hard on finding that right word or phrase.

    What I have discovered works best for me is a mix of just plowing on while the words are flowing and fixing as I go along. If I can fix whatever is jarring me quickly and get back to the flow, I do. Otherwise I write myself a note in the ms to fix this later.

  9. I have always edited as I go along and I'm learning, it's the worst thing for me. As a perfectionist I get tangled up in getting it exactly right the first time. SO much so I tie myself into knots. Recently I wrote without editing and it has been liberating. Don't get me wrong, I've tweaked a long the way but mostly I make a note in my margins and keep moving forward. I have been more productive, creative and found a beautiful balance between writing and editing. I think the most important thing is to be true to what works for you.

  10. Thanks for your response, Todd. Every writer finds the method that works for him- or herself, and you're lucky to have found something that works for you early in your writing career.

    All the best for your writing!

  11. Morgan, Maryann, Lillie, and Dana:

    You are all absolutely right! In writing there is no single method that works for every writer. We each have to find our own path into the piece, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, short or book-length. Just as one writer's vision differs from all others, so do our methods.

    I advocate using the method that takes you into the piece and at last corresponds to your own vision. Whatever that method might be.

    (Yes, that sentence fragment is intentional.)

    Best wishes for your best writing!

  12. I agree with Carol, too. I edit as I go along, typically the next morning before starting on new work. My mind is rested and I can approach yesteday's work with a fresh approach. Thanks for posting this interesting blog, Heidi.


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